Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Introduction and Notes by Nancy Stade
General Consulting Editor, George Stade

The Scarlet Letter was first published in 1850.
This trade paperback edition was published in 2005.

Why should we read the Classics? One reason is for the history not only of the time and place; but for the ideas that have found expression through the writer. Roughly 4500 years ago, some scribe marked up The Epic of Gilgamesh into clay tablets. We have an intriguing glimpse into the time and place and some action points to string a story together; but we don't have a sense of what the characters were really thinking or what sensibility guided their thought processes. What was it like to live in a world where you perceived time as circular and cyclical, not linearly? How did the concepts of civilization, a major shift from the nomadic and animistic lifestyle change their worldview? How did the oral tradition and sense of history transmute their own sense of culture? Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we will ever know because the story contains no explanation. It is no more than a historic artifact celebrated for being the oldest written story. The Classics, however, tell us more. The Classics provide a sense of "interior history," ideas that had currency when they were written and still inform our culture today.

But why should you read The Scarlet Letter? The events that make up the main body of the work were not contemporary to the writer so how could he posit a credible story that reflects a mindset of a society that he could not have possibly have experienced? But the thing is, he did. No, Hawthorne did not live in the 17th century; but he did live in a small town with a strong cultural legacy to that time and; family ties bound him to the history of which he wrote. He was living with the effects a Puritanical society that embedded itself into the political consciousness of his day and, actually still lives with us even now (Don't fool yourself that because we don't put people in stocks or force them to wear a scarlet "A" upon their breasts, that we don't excoriate adulterers, especially if they happen to be public figures.) Hawthorne builds the first bridge between the events of 1650 and 1850 by creating prologue in which he discovers the documents that purportedly contain the events of the main body of the story. The second bridge is the one created by the reader's connection to the text. The second bridge is a meta-literary experience that elevates the text from being an artifact to being historically relevant, something from which, like all history, we can extricate meaning to our current lives.

The Scarlet Letter is an exposition of how religious and political thought cohered to create an inheritance of our American culture: a paradox of sex and sexuality, religious freedom that incarcerates and the punishment that frees. Hester Prynne falls in love with a man and gets pregnant by him; but does not enjoy the benefits of marriage which apparently include not being shoved into a jail cell, being publicly called out for her sin, reminding everyone else of her indiscretion by wearing a red "A" upon her chest and, being pretty much excluded from town life. Had she been married to the man, this would not have happened. So, falling in love and having sex with the man is a sin when the sanctity of marriage is not conferred by the town-church; but falling in love and having sex with a man becomes the consecration of life affirming values when you add in the public endorsement of marriage. It's a fine line between hypocrisy and relative morality. Hester Prynne is punished for her transgression; but her moment in the the town square (wherein she is brought out before all the townspeople) is meant to be an occasion for her not only to renounce her sin; but to give up the name of her lover as well so that he too may be free of guilt. Only through renunciation can the opportunity exist for forgiveness. There is an celebratory atmosphere to the denunciation of Hester Prynne. A zealful, but compassionless event in which Hester Prynne's pride is sacrificed to the self-righteous crowd. Except that Hester doesn't renounce her sin, give up her lover's name and, the public does not forgive or even really seem inclined to do so (after all the punishment begins before the possibility of her renouncement.) Ironically, Hester Prynne's punishment actually does free her: Her isolation forms her into a woman of independent thought, devoid of the hobbling dictates of the Puritan community.

The Scarlet Letter offers a lot in terms of ideas as to who we were, who we are and through the second bridge, who we can be.

Other Stuff: The Scarlet Letter (by Nathaniel Hawthorne) qualifies for
  • The What's in a Name? Challenge #5 hosted by @BethFishReads as a "book with something you'd carry in your pocket, purse, or backpack in the title [e.g.] Sarah's Key, The Scarlet Letter, Devlin Diary"

I purchased The Scarlet Letter (by Nathaniel Hawthorne) from the Barnes & Noble store in Medford, OR. I receive no monies, goods or services in exchange for reviewing the product and/or mentioning any of the persons or companies that are or may be implied in this post.

"Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
--- John 8: 32

1 comment:

  1. I feel The Scarlet Letter always gets a bum rap because so many people are forced to read it in high school, at an age where they cannot appreciate the lessons - both moral and historical. You are absolutely correct that taking away the stocks and scarlet A does not mean we are all that far removed from such behaviors. In fact, one could argue that the recent shift towards conservatism is only bringing us even closer to our Puritanical roots. Classics are a wonderful way to bridge that gap between past and present, something that should be done with more frequency, IMO.

    Great review!